Speed. Ability to accelerate or change direction quickly. To beat an opponent to the ball. In sport, speed is integral to winning battles, races and points. If you have it, you have the advantage. If you don’t, what do you do?

Some believe that there is nothing you can do, that speed is genetic and there is no point training to improve it. Although there is a genetic element regarding the predominance of your muscle fibre type, speed can be trained. If you have the desire to succeed at your sport, you can work to be the quickest you can be.

For some that know me personally from a football performance standpoint, this article may seem ironic, and somewhat hilarious. As a youngster, I had a good ability to accelerate and succeed in Football and Athletics. This has not been the case as an adult. Before learning the science behind movement, this conundrum had stumped me and made me think that perhaps I was more of a pedestrian athlete.

What is Speed?

I want to make this simple and not particularly jargon-y.

In relation to Newtons Third Law: “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction”. Broken down simply, it means – if you want to move forward, you need to push against the ground behind you. If you want to move right, you have to push against the ground to the left. And so on.

To propel your body forward, you must push against the ground. What is required? Strength of muscle contraction (Force). Speed of movement and force produced (velocity). There are other factors at play but let’s address the force and velocity things first.

Applying force is an easy one – this is a question of relative strength. You have some very strong athletes who aren’t quick. You have some athletes who aren’t as strong but are quick as a flash. This comes down to relative body strength and the ability to apply force quickly.

I know of some rugby players who can probably push a truck, but they’re not winning any races. This is because they do not have relative strength to their bodyweight, and actually cannot express their force quickly enough into the ground to be effective in sprinting.

Then you see the lightest people in the world, who can express the force they have at lightning rate resulting in efficient propulsion of the body in the required direction. Their neural recruitment of force is efficient by force and time requirement of that force.

Velocity is speed. And if you cannot express the force you have at the rate needed for quick and effective ground contact then you may be strong as hell, but you will look sluggish on the pitch (enter any game playing or race running surface here).

How Do I Gain Speed?

The first step – get stronger. If you aren’t quick, then you do have that relative body strength that’s required for efficient sprinting performance. Effective prep, strength and velocity resistance training programming is required.

To successfully programme for strength, you must first build the foundation blocks through general preparation phases before going into more intensity specific training blocks.

Once you are proficient technically to Squat, hinge, push, pull and brace – then you can start to adding some tin onto the bar. Intensity high, volume low.

You won’t be shocked by this next one – you need to start sprinting more. Practice is practice and you need to start scheduling a session or two a week on a field or track etc. DO NOT MAKE THIS A CONDITIONING SESSION. You need sufficient rest periods to allow your nervous system and relevant energy systems to recover from maximal intensity effort. Just start doing it, your speed will improve. Technical work will be needed, but as you may not be looking to compete at Tokyo 2020 (disappointing if you’re not – seriously what else are you going to be doing that summer?) then perhaps do not worry about optimal shin angle for now.

Plyometric work- this kind of training essentially is based around the speed of the ground contact time and the rate of force production (or RFD – Rate of Force Development) during that foot contact. A true plyometric activity entails a ground contact time of .200s or shorter, which has a close transfer to the ground contact time when sprinting. Active ankle dorsiflexion (loading/eccentric phase) into energy transference into the ground via plantarflexion (amortisation into concentric). Basically, ball of foot contact with the floor into triple extension (extension at hip, knee ankle).

As well as applying contractile force into the ground, there is also a certain amount of tendon stiffness needed to absorb and produce the required force. Think of a basketball bouncing down the court – the flat ball will not bounce, whereas the stiffer surfaced ball will bounce the whole length of the court. This metaphor is apt, considering the spring and stiffness needed in absorption and production of force to propel the body forward successfully during sprinting. *

* The Stretch-Shortening Cycle and the efficiency of this is an important factor in this process- and is something I will cover in a future post!

So…. What Do I Do?

Let’s sum up what you need to do to be as fast as you can at sprinting;

  • Get Strong – technically proficient in the gym
  • Work at your Rate of Force Development (RFD)
  • Practice Sprinting
  • Train with Intent and Intensity!

The last point is actually as important as the other aspects, as many go through the motions during this kind of training and do not get the best results possible.

Learn the basics first, drop by Phoenix Performance and learn how to be proficiently strong in the gym – build your levels of strength before learning how to apply contractile force!

At Phoenix Performance, we work with many sports players, using Strength and Conditioning techniques, we have successfully helped many clients improve their speed so that they can become more rounded sports players.

For more information on how we can help you, contact us at [email protected] or click here to fill out an enquiry form and we’ll get straight back to you.